A 4GW puzzle: what happened in the Straits of Hormuz?

What happened in the Straits of Hormuz on 6 January?  Malcolm Nance, in an article at the Small Wars Council, assures us that “the most recent incident is neither an attempt to create a modern-day Gulf of Tonkin incident nor a move by the IRGC to a new tactic”.  While Nance’s background gives assurance that his technical analysis of the incident is authoritative, is he correct about the intent of senior DoD and Administration officials?

4GW combatants fight for the moral high ground as previous generations of soldiers fought for hilltops.  {Note:  this is a matter of emphasis.  Bismark brilliantly and carefully sought useful casus belli as today’s Iraq insurgent snipers seek good locations in their urban geography.}  Successfully managing media coverage can exert powerful geopolitical leverage.  The actual events are just raw material — something that has not changed since 1964.

Gareth Porter takes the same facts as Nance, but adds two off-the-record quotes from government officials and spins a different narrative.  According to him, officials were attempting to manipulate the news in a similar — if not as ambitious — way as the Johnson Administration officials who parlayed the Gulf of Tonkin incident into a major war for America.

Who is correct?  Here is the information.  You decide.  After 43 years, we now know the truth of the Tonkin Gulf incident.  Perhaps in 2051 we will discuss this again.

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Update:  I received many emails asking for my conclusion about this incident.  For what it is worth, in my opinion…

  • Exploiting this was a logical step, both to set the tone for the President’s trip to the Middle East and advance its anti-Iran policies.
  • However, this information supports no firm conclusions about the intentof senior Administration officials.  Determining intent requires either insider information or much more explicit actions than seen here.   So we cannot say if this was “like” the Gulf of Tonkin” incident.
  • These incidents are just sparks, igniting dry tinder destined to burn.  The War of Jenkin’s Ear.  The Zimmerman Telegram.  The countless instances throughout history of “waving the bloody shirt.”  Considering these things as “causes” of war is the post hoc ergo prompter hoc logical fallacy.

… now back to the narrative of the Straits of Hormuz.

The quotes from Gareth Porter’s article “How the Pentagon Planted a False Hormuz Story” (Inter Press Service, 15 January 2007)  are labeled as IPS and in green.

29 Nov 2007 — CNN reports that “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has taken command of Iranian naval operations in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. military has revealed.”

19 December — “The USS Whidbey Island fired the warning shots on Dec. 19 in response to a small Iranian boat that was rapidly approaching it”, from 8 January AP story.   DoD officials neither announced or leaked this news until after the 6 January incident.

7 of January 2007 — CNN breaks the story that “Five Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats “harassed and provoked” three U.S. Navy ships early Sunday in international waters, the U.S. military said Monday, calling the encounter a “significant” confrontation.”  On 15 January Pentagon Press Secretary Morrell says that this story was “leaked to someone in the press.”

7 January – Central Command issues a brief press release:  “Three U.S. Navy Ships Approached by Iranian Boats”.  Here is the initial story.  Here is the follow-up, released 2 1/2 hours later.

7 January — Transcript of DoD News Briefing with Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff (commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, commander of the Combined Maritime Forces).  This includes links to the video of the incident.

IPS:  “Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros of the Pentagon’s Public Affairs Office told IPS the decision on what to include in the video was “a collaborative effort of leadership here, the Central Command, and Navy leadership in the field.”  “Leadership here”, of course, refers to the secretary of defense and other top policymakers at the department.  An official in the US Navy Office of Information in Washington, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that decision was made in the office of the secretary of defense.”

7 January — Transcript of media briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:

QUESTION: In this regard, how do you perceive the incidents?
SECRETARY RICE: Yes, well, let me just say that Iran should not engage in such provocations and that’s what it was and it needs to stop. And the United States is going to defend its interests, it’s going to defend the interests of its allies, and the President’s made that very clear.

8 January — Transcript of a media event with President Bush.

Q:   Mr. President, what do you make of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz with Iran on Sunday? Do you think they were trying to provoke a fight with the U.S.?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Mark, we viewed it as a provocative act. It is a dangerous situation, and they should not have done it, pure and simple.

Q:   What do you think they were up to?
PRESIDENT: I don’t know what I think — what their thinking was, but I’m telling you what I think it was. I think it was a provocative act.

Q:   What will your message be to the Fifth Fleet when you’re there in Bahrain?
PRESIDENT: My message is, thanks for serving the United States of America; we’re proud of you. And my message today to the Iranians is, they shouldn’t have done what they did.

11 January — Transcript of DoD News Briefing with Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff). 

ADM. MULLEN:  There’s been a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking in the wake of this incident, second-guessing by some people about whether or not those ship commanders acted appropriately, and even a report today that perhaps the radio calls were not from Iranian boats. …

Q:  Can you tell us if there have been similar incidents that you’re aware of?  What made this one different, if anything? And can you shed any light on the issue of the radio transmission and where it came from?

ADM. MULLEN: I can’t shed any — I’ll get to the second part first — I can’t shed any light as far as the radio transmission is concerned. The — there have been other situations where certainly ships transiting the Straits of Hormuz have been approached. To my knowledge, I have not seen one as both provocative and dramatic as this.… What bothered me most about it is that it was so proximate to those ships and in what appeared to be, by all accounts from what I can tell, without responding, including dumping boxes in the water.  We’ve been concerned for years about the threat of mining those straits, and sometimes at sea it can be pretty difficult about what they really did put in the water, depending on the range and the other kinds of conditions.

11 January — Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell backs away from the story.  Quote from the Washington Post:

“No one in the military has said that the transmission emanated from those boats. But when they hear it simultaneously to the behavior of those boats, it only adds to the tension … If this verbal threat emanated from something or someone unrelated to the five boats, it would not lessen the threat from those boats.”

11 January — In a telephone interview, Fifth Fleet spokesman Lieutenant John Gay tells AFP “There is no way to know where this (radioed threat) exactly came from. It could have come from the shore… or another vessel in the area. … the Iranian fastboats were acting in a very provocative and aggressive manner” {towards the US warships in the strategic waterway at the time}.   Here is a similar ABC story.

13 January — Press conference with Captain David Adler, commanding officer of USS Port Royal, reported here.

“They came at us as a group of five, in a formation, very professionally formed up,” James said. “This was not a loose band of guys. I mean, they knew what they were doing.”  “We saw Iranian flags on at least one,” Adler said. And one had what appeared to be a weapons mount but “it was just too far away to tell” if there was a weapon on it.

Three boats “stayed on one side of us,” James said, while the other two “crossed our bow very close…. They came down our port side, turned around, came right at us at a high rate of speed.”  The Navy ships increased speed and repeatedly radioed the small boats.

That’s when the radio threats were heard, James said.  “One of the transmissions was, ‘I am coming to you,’ and then, shortly after that, ‘You will explode in a few minutes.’ Whether it was coincidental or not, it occurred at the exact same time that these boats were around us and they were placing objects in the water, so I would say the threat appeared to be building.”

The packages were placed in the water alongside the warships and ahead of them.  “I saw them float by,” Adler said. “They didn’t look that threatening to me.”

15 January — Transcript of DoD News Briefing with Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

Q Can you also explain why it seemed anyway that the U.S. military and Pentagon officials so aggressively pushed the events that happened on that Sunday, in the Strait of Hormuz, involving the Rev Guard boats and the U.S. warships?  And there was seemingly no revelation about the previous incidents in December, in which warning shots were actually fired.  Because critics claim it’s a matter of timing, to coincide with President Bush’s trip to the Middle East.

MR. MORRELL:  That’s absurd.  The — I will remind you that this story was leaked, to someone in the press, and broadcast.  It was not officially announced by anybody in this department.   Let me come back to your second point about trying to differentiate this incident from previous ones. But this notion that in any way this was hyped or — this was in any way hyped is absurd.  {he goes on at some length to answer this.}

No date, quote from IPS:  Asked whether the navy’s reporting of the episode was distorted by Pentagon officials, Lydia Robertson of Fifth Fleet Public Affairs would not comment directly. But she said, “There is a different perspective over there.””

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